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Two days after Chicago won the Golden Globe for Best Musical/Comedy and just days before its Australian opening, the film’s Australian cinematographer, Dion Beebe, tells Andrew L. Urban what a fateful coincidence got him the gig and how it was the biggest stretch of his career. But like the opening song says, it was a case of ‘C’mon, babe, let’s paint this town…” and going for it.

How’s this for proof that the universe is watching? Australian cinematographer Dion Beebe (Charlotte Gray) was finishing up work on a film in London, when he was given tickets to the stage musical, Chicago, by his work associates. On his way to the theatre, he got a call from his agent asking if he’d be interested to read the screen adaptation of Chicago, with a view to taking it on as director of photography. “This is a little weird,” he thought. 

“Then when I saw it on stage, I thought it was a challenging piece to take to the screen, because it really plays out to the audience.” He read the script and loved it. “I saw how [director/choreographer] Rob Marshall and Bill Condon [the writer] had brought the world of Chicago in the 20s and 30s and the musical fantasy together. I thought wow, this could really work.”

“it was the biggest stretch of my career”

Beebe was right on both counts: “it was the biggest stretch of my career,” he says, and it really works. (Winning the Best Musical/Comedy Golden Globe award is probably just the start….)

In his early conversations with Marshall, Beebe expressed the view that what would make or break the film was the transitions from the theatrical to the real world. Marshall agreed. “In fact,” says Beebe, “he originally wanted to shoot the scenes of the real Chicago in black and white, but the studio wouldn’t have that. So we ended up using a very muted colour palette to create the contrast with the rich colours of the musical numbers.” And the exhortation in the film’s fabulous opening number, All That Jazz, to ‘c’mon, babe, let’s paint this town,’ was taken pretty literally, with a vibrant colour palette that just about jumps off the screen with energy.

The story (orginally written for the stage by John Kander and Fred Ebb) is a cynical look at the power of showbiz when handled right, the shallowness of the venal world of Chicago (and beyond)… Married but unfaithful Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger) dreams of singing and dancing her way out of her suburban life, following in the dance steps of Chicago’s hot vaudeville performer Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones). When she is dumped by her boyfriend, Roxie shoots him. She meets Velma in prison, who is also up for murdering a guy and is attracting big headlines. Under the crooked care of jail warden Matron Morton (Queen Latifah), Roxie meets legendary defence lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), who knows how to get a gal off a murder rap. At a price. Now it’s Roxie who is the media celebrity, but Velma has a few aces left in the garter of her shapely legs.

"six and seven day weeks"

Rob Marshall impressed Beebe with his Broadway work ethic. “We were shooting six and seven day weeks and it was tough,” he says. Even in pre-production, when the cast were going through extensive training, there’d be meetings with Marshall at 10pm or later. 

Faced with the challenge of making those transitions work, Marshall would shoot each musical number like a live show. “We used to joke that we could sell tickets for the shoot, even though we were using a warehouse,” says Beebe. “It needed a whole new set of parameters to shoot this, and we used a set of theatrical as well as film lighting crews, who were great. 

“We had a very detailed framework for each of the numbers; and every time we were doing a dramatic sequence, we would have playback there and quite often the music would underscore the final piece of dramatic shooting because we knew we were bridging into a number. Each number presented different challenges…we had lots and lots of lighting cues for each number. And because of Rob’s stage background he’d like to run these numbers like a show – from start to finish, with all the cues called live. Scenics flying, curtains parting, spotlights coming on, changing colours …. the whole thing.”

There was no time to prepare a detailed storyboard, so Beebe would shoot rehearsals on a hand held video camera while the scene was blocked out. “As the choreographer as well as director, Rob would work out dance routines to make sure there was room for the camera, so it was pretty carefully prepared.”

"really willing and excited"

The cast worked like demons, says Beebe, “they were really willing and excited.” They reminded him of the good old days of showbiz, when top notch singing and dancing was part of every star’s repertoire. “Here we had these marquee names, Richard Gere, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renee Zellweger doing a musical, and I thought, this is how it should be, if we are to re-awaken this genre.” 

Right after Chicago, Beebe went to work with Australian director Jane Campion (again – he shot Holy Smoke for her) on Campion’s adaptation of the Susanna Moore novel, In The Cut, which has eroticism, murder and drama – but no musical numbers.

Beebe, with a home in Sydney but for the past five years mostly based in Los Angeles with his filmmaker wife, is keen to find a film project ‘back home’ and is currently looking at various scripts. But nothing’s going to compare to Chicago – “I saw that there was something there. It had a spark.”

Published January 30, 2003

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In the Cut (2003) 
Equilibrium (2002) 
Chicago (2002) 
Charlotte Gray (2001) 
Goddess of 1967, The (2000) 
Forever Lulu (2000) 
Holy Smoke (1999) 
Praise (1998) 
Memory & Desire (1997) 
40,000 Years of Dreaming (1996) 
Down Rusty Down (1996) 
Floating Life (1996) 
Vacant Possession (1995) 
What I Have Written (1995) 
Eternity (1994) 
Crush (1992)

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